I’m back in Phuket and it’s been pouring rain since I returned to the province early Wednesday morning. My stay in Malaysia was fairly uneventful, my few accomplishments satisfying as I easily obtained my desired visa and had no hassles upon re-crossing the Thai border. I was unable to do much in the way of sightseeing due to a twisted ankle within an hour of my arrival in Penang nor was I able to visit any schools as they were all closed on a two-week holiday! However, my brief hobbles through George Town intensified my desire to eventually make this my new home.
The trip south was much smoother than it had been in March – my 267-baht second-class bus left Phuket shortly after nine o’clock Saturday evening and arrived at the Hat Yai bus station around three in the morning. I had the impression that it must have been a Muslim holy day as the buses and stations were packed with women wearing veils and even a few in the full burkha (men were much less in evidence). I spent the next four hours trying to relax amidst the crowds (and blaring television sets) in the bus station while awaiting the neighboring ticket agents to open. Most double as mom-and-pop streetside restaurants and it’s possible to book rides on minivans (and larger buses as well) to many of the region’s destinations. The earliest transport I found headed for Penang was due to depart at 8:30 with a fare of 350 baht. The van actually arrived at 8:10 but then took me to the company’s office where I filled out a Malaysian immigration card and waited around for more passengers to arrive; we finally left around ten with a full load. These vans operate on a profit-only mentality and attempt to stuff as many people as possible inside the 12-passenger vehicles without any consideration towards comfort or safety. The trip down wasn’t so bad (the return was another matter) and I was dropped off outside of NJ Books on Chulia Street in the heart of old George Town around 3:00 Sunday afternoon.
After exchanging baht for ringgits (NJ Books is primarily a money-lender with it’s guesthouse, internet cafe, ticket agency, and visa service being utilized much more than the shelves of used paperbacks) I registered for the next morning’s journey to the Thai consulate. The cost here is just 20 ringgit (200 baht – I love an exchange rate where I only have to add or subtract a zero!) – which I’m sure is less than the two round-trip taxi trips between one’s guesthouse and the Thai consulate. Most other visa services in town charge 25 or 30 ringgit, although some will submit the visa application on your behalf so you don’t even have to accompany them. After filling out the paperwork I walked across the street to Stardust Guesthouse – the same place I stayed last time – and booked two nights’ accommodation. It cost 227 baht per night for a fan room (and they provided a towel this time!); I stayed on the second floor right next to the communal shower/toilet room.
The first thing I did upon settling into my room was to fire up the notebook and check out the wireless connection. It was nice and strong and everything worked – except for this blog! I couldn’t access Phuket Bookworm the entire time I was in Malaysia; I checked my site host and ascertained that I hadn’t exceeded the monthly bandwidth allowance or anything else like that. I still don’t know why I couldn’t connect to it… After downloading Microsoft updates and new virus definitions for my anti-virus programs, I took a shower and headed out to find some dinner. I was craving some Western food – particularly Mexican fare – but my first choice (Blue Diamond) was completely gone with a new building under construction in that location and my second choice (Slippery Senorita’s) didn’t have a single Mexican-style dish anywhere on it’s streetside menu. I was a bit upset in that I’d wrenched my foot around in a hole while walking and my ankle was really throbbing and starting to swell. I limped along the busy streets towards an area in which I’d spotted a Subway Sandwich Shop during my March trip – salivating at the thought of taking a couple of sandwiches back to the guesthouse – but failed to find that as well. I even checked out Red Garden – a huge area of hawker stalls – but could find nothing that appealed to me so I headed back in the direction of Chulia Street with the intention of just buying some snacks at a mini-mart. Along the way, I did stop for some photographs of a trio of churches and the Penang Museum:
I even came across a large Chinese hall that was the site of a famous speech given by Sun Yat Sen:
Along the way back to Chulia Street I skirted the fringes of Little India, walked through a bit of Chinatown, and discovered a large mosque:
I was lucky to come across ECCO Cafe just a short distance from my guesthouse – it had been closed when I’d walked by earlier in the evening – and grabbed the last remaining table. I ate here on my last visit, quite enjoying a sandwich but swore that if I ate there again I would order the sandwich on focaccia bread rather than a baguette. I don’t remember what was wrong with the bun during that meal but this time around they were out of focaccia so this evening I ordered a turkey, ham & cheese sandwich on a baguette and it was quite good. It was served with a side of cole slaw on a bed of lettuce and I put that inside the roll as well. Yum! As an appetizer I ordered "garlic butter pizza bread", envisioning a thick slide of French-style garlic bread topped with tomato sauce and cheese with perhaps some pepperoni or similar meat. What arrived was some very thin and crunchy flatbread (Indian nan bread, I think) with some cheese and garlic melted onto it. Nic
e, but not was I was expecting. I washed it all down with orange juice (that tasted more of tangerine). All in all, it was a satisfying dinner and I’ll just have to wait a while longer before experiencing a proper Mexican meal once again.
After eating I was tempted to check out a movie in the big Bollywood cinema at the top of Chulia Street:
Instead, I opted for a stroll eastwards down Penang Road as it was a very pleasant evening:
I returned to my room fairly early armed with a few drinks purchased at Gops Mart (including the tastiest bottle of apple juice I’ve had since leaving Kansas!) and spent a couple of hours reading (Thai Gold) before turning in. Monday morning I remained at the guesthouse until it was time to go to the Thai consulate at 9:30. My ankle was a funny shade of blue-black and a bit swollen as I crossed the street to NJ Books. I was disappointed as I knew I’d be in no mood for sightseeing after I took care of the visa formalities. I’d really wanted to make my way to the offices of Penang Heritage Trust and also visit the Penang Museum. Now that I was familiar with the routine at the consulate (sign-in with the guard, obtain number/receipt at the window, and then wait in line) I was able to queue without any nagging worries in the back of my mind. In fact, I helped out a few other farang who weren’t sure what to do (there aren’t exactly any signage alerting one to the proper procedure). The minivan dropped us back at NJ Books shortly after ten and I hobbled back up to my room to await the 3:30 return to the consulate. That was also stress-free for myself as I knew I didn’t have any pressing appointments afterwards but the one other foreigner who was to accompany me to the consulate completely freaked-out. The driver was a no-show and the minutes were ticking away a bit too rapidly for comfort. The consulate closes at 4:00 and the other farang had booked his return to Hat Yai for that time. I told him to relax – that the NJ boys were professionals and they wouldn’t leave us in a lurch. Sure enough, they called a taxi with just ten minutes to spare. Amazingly, I was extremely calm during the taxi ride over – despite bumper-to-bumper traffic – and walked up through the gate at the Thai compound just as they began to lock up. I felt confident enough that I didn’t even check inside my passport until I was back on the minivan (of course, I could see the receipt sticking out and figured if they denied my application they would have refunded my money rather than just present my passport without comment).
After returning to Stardust – showering and changing out of my dress shirt (I always try to look like a professional when dealing with bureaucrats!) – I felt rather comfortable and decided to do a bit of walking. I didn’t want to waste the entire trip in my room! I took care not to put too much weight on my left ankle and made my way through the streets towards Komitar – the iconic tower which rises over a complex of shopping malls. I do enjoy walking in this area of town as I’m now familiar enough with it to not become hopelessly lost and I revel in the interesting street life one encounters at every turn. Upon arriving in the air-conditioned shopping centers – I’m not sure which one as they tend to blend into each other – I was momentarily tempted by a huge Pizza Hut but decided I didn’t want to spent that much money! I’d decided I wanted to find a large book store (Chulia Street is home to dozens of used bookshops but nothing new) and the malls seemed like a good place to find one. The directory in the rather disorienting atrium I found myself in listed four bookstore on the fourth floor. After much searching I’d discovered three of those but they were filled with look-alike Chinese comic digests (EVERY single book in each one of these shops looked EXACTLY the same on the cover). Definitely not what I was looking for! I went to a neighboring mall and got hopelessly lost in a rabbit warren of confusing passageways. I did discover two McDonald’s buried within the bowels of this place but opted for a dinner at KFC instead. They don’t serve regular fries there but instead give you a side of huge potato wedges covered in a salty cheese-and-cream sauce. I wouldn’t mind an entire meal of these! The sauce is so good that I use it to dip my sandwich in after the potatoes are finished. I also ordered a small cole slaw and a small order of "whipped potatoes" (mashed potatoes and gravy – these were WAY TOO HOT and scalded my tongue). Another good meal but I instantly regretted not spending my ringgit on street food.
It was late in the afternoon as I exited the shopping malls. I relished the warm air and traffic and headed west, back towards Chulia Street. By the time I arrived there were crowds of people along the sidewalks so I decided to keep walking. It was a pleasant evening and I’d gotten used to the dull throbbing coming from my ankle. I soon found myself in front of the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (not as nice as Raffles in Singapore but still much more than I can ever hope to afford) and decided I’d attempt to find the Protestant Cemetery. Luckily, I’d remembered to stuff a map in my pocket and with a bit of trial-and-error I managed to discover it without too much difficulty. The groundskeeper was padlocking the front gate as I approached and I asked him what time the cemetery would open in the morning. He asked if I wanted to go inside for some photographs right then and I gratefully accepted. He allowed me twenty minutes to explore the grounds. It was still fairly light despite the numerous trees and I set off to find Captain Charles Light’s grave, taking pictures of other interesting monuments along the way. In the end, the groundskeeper beckoned that my time was up before I’d discovered the tomb I’d been seeking. I still felt content and knew I’d return someday for another attempt. (I discovered upon reviewing my photos after returning to Phuket that I had managed to snap a picture of the grave of Light’s replacement – William Petrie – so that’s something!)
Before returning to my guesthouse this evening I made one final stop at a Happy Mart (these look better than the ubiquitous 7-Eleven) for some water and sodas. I tend to wake up in the middle of the night craving something to drink so I always make sure there’s a few items on-hand. This night I bought some juice plus a can of Vanilla Coke and a bottle of A&W. However, the latter turned out to be sarsaparilla rather than root beer… Another evening of reading followed, prolonged somewhat by a loud party downstairs which would have prevented sleep anyway. It didn’t wrap up – and I didn’t nod off – until after three.
I had prepaid for two nights at Stardust and needed to decide if I wanted to extend my stay or check out when I woke up on Tuesday morning. My ankle was throbbing once again and I knew I wouldn’t want to walk too far on it that day. Thus, my decision to return to Thailand was made. I walked over to NJ Books and bought a ticket for the noon minivan to Hat Yai (300 baht), had a bit of breakfast in the guesthouse’s coffee shop (a "ham" and cheese sandwich), and then packed. The minivan was thirty minutes late and I was the only passenger when it departed. I thought myself lucky as I remained solo as we crossed the long bridge to Butterworth and then we picked up a nice Muslim man headed to his home in Yala. It was the first time I’d talked on this trip (the driver seemed rather unwilling at conversation – intent as he was on blaring techno music as loud as he could on the van’s speaker system). We had only traveled a bit further down the road when he realized he’d forgotten to pick somebody up! He made some frantic calls on his mobile and we soon found ourselves heading back over the bridge.
He found two fares on the Penang Island side (close to the university rather than in George Town) and ended up picking up a couple more when we returned to the Butterworth side! Now with a properly full van he headed towards Hat Yai at warp speed.
There were no difficulties with the border crossing – once again, the van stopped at a restaurant perhaps a kilometer or two from the Malaysian checkpoint where we gave the driver our passports and he returned a few minutes later with Thai arrival/departure cards with most of our information typed upon them. My last driver had charged each of the passengers two ringgit (20 baht) for this service. This driver didn’t ask us for any cash (I’d saved a few ringgit just for this purpose). Upon entering Thailand, the immigration official didn’t say one word to me which was nice – he just flipped through the passport a couple of times and then stamped all the necessary spots. In March, the official had been in a foul mood – denying one person in our group from entering Thailand at all and sending the person right in front of me to the 15-day visa-on-arrival booth (he’d obtained the same 60-day Tourist Visa I had). This had scared the bejesus out of me and when I approached the window he began quizzing me on what I was going to do and where I was going to go. He’d tapped something on his computer and asked odd questions about my wife in Phuket. In the end, I’d been stamped-in for 60 days but it was a stressful few minutes. None of that this time around…
Once on the Thai side of the border I believe our minivan driver suddenly thought he was driving a motorbike because he began cutting in-and-out of traffic like Richard Petty trying to win the Indy 500. He switched lanes almost constantly, got onto slow-moving vehicles’ bumpers, flashed his lights and spent quite a bit of time racing up the narrow road shoulders – scattering motorbikes and pedestrians alike. He shot through more than his fare share of red lights, narrowly avoiding several collisions and garnering much honking of horns. We made up some time, I suppose, and he dropped me off at the Hat Yai Municipal Bus Station just after three o’clock. I was easily able to catch the 15:40 second-class bus to Phuket (again, 267 baht). For once I was actually able to read for part of the bus journey rather than just staring out the window. It began raining somewhere between Trang and Krabi and was pouring cats-and-dogs when we were let off at Phuket Provincial Bus Station. Rather than pulling into a semi-covered bay, the bus stopped in the flooded street and we had to wade over to shelter. As it was raining, the motorbike taxi drivers had all but disappeared and it was another hour before I could catch a ride home (he quoted me 200 which was too much to begin with but then strong-armed me for a total of 300 baht when we arrived at my apartment – I’m really sick of the greed among public transport providers in this province!).
Now that I’m home (and it’s raining) everything’s a bit on hold. I’m disappointed I didn’t stick with my original plan of checking out some schools in Hat Yai or Songkhla (I wasn’t really thinking when I arrived in Hat Yai after that death-defying minivan dash – I just wanted to get home) and to top it all off, there’s no running water at home! The pump had been flooded and not working back on Saturday when I’d left – and I’d drained the water bucket on a shower and laundry on that day – and here it was still not working. I lifted the lid on the toilet basin to fill it with bottled water and two giant cockroaches crawled out of the pipe! I absolutely hate bugs! As I write this on Thursday evening I can hear workers outside dragging blue PVC pipe across our small courtyard in the downpour so, perhaps, we’ll have running water soon. I feel a bit better as I took a bucket shower earlier so I do feel a bit clean but I’d still like to wash some clothes and perform other water-essential tasks with confidence.
Oh, to be back in Penang!